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CPWR Chair Emeritus Rev. Bill Lesher Weighs In on Park51 Debate


Interreligious Reflections on the New York Center and Mosque Project

William Lesher, Chair Emeritus, Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions

What some in the media have referred to as “a fire storm” over the mosque debate in lower Manhattan is turning out to be a catalyst to launch a much needed national discussion (and tutorial) on Muslims in America.

Since this discussion was intensified by the exaggerated rhetoric and distorted claims of Pamela Geller, a conservative blogger in her post on May 6, a consensus seems to be forming among constitutionally committed citizens across the political spectrum.  Fair-minded people are agreeing that the Imam and his wife in charge of the mosque project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, Daisy Khan and their supporters, have every right to expand their center and include a new worship space on the site.  They have worked from and worshipped in this place for many years, two blocks from the World Trade Center disaster.  Even though current polls claim that 7 out of 10 Americans oppose the project, opponents can hardly argue that the project planners do not have a constitutional right to carry out their vision.  As one letter to the NY Times editor put it, “As a legal matter, there is nothing to debate.  If a church or synagogue could be constructed on this site, so may a mosque.  Period. The first amendment means at least that.”

The location of the proposed Islamic Center touches the raw nerve that has elicited often shrill claims ranging from insensitivity to the families of the 9/11 victims and desecration of hallowed ground to an international Islamic conspiracy to subvert the nation.  Given the fact that the vast majority of Americans know little of Islam and know almost nothing of the history and intentions of the center planners in lower Manhattan, it is not surprising that the barrage of misinformation that initiated and continues to stoke the current national discussion has filled this vacuum and created the sharp negative and often heated responses.

But now, as the national discussion continues, one might cautiously hope, even anticipate, that the time is right for a nation-wide learning process to unfold.  This could become a time for Americans of fairness and goodwill to take the time to listen and to learn from people in the interreligious community and from Muslims themselves about the importance, the variety, and the beauty of this second largest religion in the world. And to hear as well, about the healing potential for having a thoroughly American expression of Islam close to the site of Ground Zero.

The Interreligious Movement in the US and around the world has been building bridges of understanding among religious communities, including Islam, for the last few decades.  Many religious people in the US are affiliated with local interreligious councils or with national and international organizations like United Religions Initiative (URI) or Religions for Peace (RFP) or have participated in one of the four modern Parliaments of the World’s Religions (PWR) with which I am affiliated. These people have led the way in this historic movement to develop knowledge, understanding, and respect for religious and spiritual communities of the world, many of whom have growing numbers of adherents in our towns and cities, states and nation.

People affiliated with the growing interreligious movement know about the great diversity that exists within Islam, not unlike the wide spectrum of beliefs, traditions and behaviors among different sectors in the Christian and Jewish communities. They know what William Dalrymple wrote about in an illuminating Op-Ed piece in the New York Times entitled, “The Muslims in the Middle,” that Islam is not a monolithic religion.  Rather it is as complex as Christianity and Judaism, with as many, perhaps more divisions, sects and traditions, some in opposition to others, as is true of every major religious group. Dalrymple helpfully teaches in his article how “Feisal Abdul Rauf…is one of America’s leading thinkers of Sufism, the mystical form of Islam which in terms of goals and outlook couldn’t be farther from the violent Wahabism of the jihadists.  His videos and sermons preach love, the remembrance of God and reconciliation…..But in the eyes of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, he is an infidel-loving, grave-worshipping apostate…”

Members of the interfaith movement are also leading the resistance to the resisters and need to do so more and more.  In another New York Times article describing protests against mosques in several communities around the country, Laurie Goodstein focuses on Temecula, Ca.  There she writes: “In late June …members of a local Tea Party group took dogs and picket signs to Friday prayers at a mosque that is seeking to build a new worship center on a vacant lot nearby.”  She goes on to say that an estimated 20 – 30 people turned out to protest the mosque.  But then Ms. Goodstein states what many of us think is the real story in Temecula, “that the protesters were outnumbered by at least 75 supporters” who affirm the right of the Muslim congregation in Temecula to expand their mosque.  Something good is happening in Temecula when, less then a decade after 9/11, local citizens know and act on the difference between their mainstream Muslim neighbors and the terrorists whose actions violated the most basic tenants of Islam. It’s too bad that the NY Times headlined the Goodstein article, “Across Nation, Mosque Projects Meet Resistance” and missed the positive thrust of the Temecula story.

Speaking from the experience of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the 2004 Parliament in Barcelona, Spain focused major attention on the issue of Religiously Motivated and Experienced Violence.  After several days of intense workshop discussions, participants from across the interreligious spectrum, agreed that the minimum responsibility of religious communities  is to come to the aid of any religious community whose house of worship is the target of an attack, vandalism, threat or destruction.

The recent Parliament in Melbourne, Australia in 2009 featured a strong focus on IslamImam Feisal Abdul Rauf himself was a major presenter leading or participating in six interreligious programs with the following titles: “Applying Islamic Principles for a Just and Sustainable World”;  “Sacred Envy Panel: Exploring What We Love about Our Own Faith, What We Admire in Others and What Challenges Us in Both”;  “Purifying the Heart and Soul through Remembrance of Allah”; “Dhikr As An Islamic Devotional Act for Inner Peace”; “How Islam Deals with Social Justice, Gender Justice and Religious Diversity”; and “Islam and the West: Creating an Accord of Civilizations.”  How much could such a teacher of Islam help to bridge the gulf of misunderstanding about this great faith tradition by continuing his long and much admired ministry in lower Manhattan where he has built an international reputation for promulgating a modern version of Islam?

So, while some call it a “fire storm” and do their best to make it so, there are other voices that seem to be gaining strength.  Among the shouting and the uninformed outrage that sometimes seems ubiquitous, I sense that  responsible media outlets and people in the interreligious movement are grasping the significance of this moment and are helping to seed the discussion with historical facts, accurate information and a commitment to understanding and respect.  If this trend continues we will all learn important things about ourselves and about the most recent global religious tradition to enter the mainstream of American life.

Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim Discuss Thomas Berry, CPWR

From The Wisdom of the Labyrinth

Acclaimed cultural historian, cosmologist, Passionist priest, and Earth scholar, Thomas Berry, was among the first of our world’s religious leaders to suggest that the earth ecological crisis is fundamentally a spiritual crisis. Thomas Berry dedicated his life to The Great Work of our time which he described simply as “moving the human community from its present situation as a destructive presence on the planet to a benign or mutually enhancing presence.” Dr. Mary Evelyn Tucker and Dr. John Grim, co-founders and co-directors of The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale and The Thomas Berry Foundation, join host Robin Bradley Hansel to share their stories and reflections on Thomas Berry’s life, his work, his writings, and his passionate dream for our Earth community.

Click here to hear the broadcast.

Courage Meets Compassion: An Interview With Sakena Yacoobi

Dr. Sakena Yacoobi

Dr. Sakena Yacoobi

In the face of great personal risk, Dr. Sakena Yacoobi founded the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) in 1995, eventually establishing 80 underground schools and educating 3,000 women and girls, defying Taliban rule. Today, AIL educates over 350,000 women and children every year and has reached over one million people.

CPWR: Tell us about your work with the Afghan Institute of Learning.

S. Yacoobi: I was in the U.S. completing my education when Russia was invading my country. I did not know if my family was alive or dead. I was very worried, so as soon as I completed my education, I returned home to find my country completely destroyed. I visited refugee camps and found that the people of Afghanistan were no longer the same. People were very different; people were sick, people were poor, people were refugees detained in camps, not having anything to do—women and children especially. There were no schools. It was heartbreaking. I felt miserable, and I said, “Well, I must do something.” The more I thought about it, the more I said, “What can I do to help?”  I figured out that I could educate them realized that lack of educational opportunities had left my country vulnerable to invasion– and had ruined people’s lives. If we empower people with education, they will be able to think critically, and this will not happen again to Afghanistan.

CPWR: What sort of education does Afghan Institute of Learning provide?

Dr. Yacoobi at the Afghan Institute of Learning

Dr. Yacoobi at the Afghan Institute of Learning

S. Yacoobi: The best way to provide education is to provide teacher training, because if you have a good teacher in the classroom, you keep students. But if you don’t have a good teacher, especially for students who are traumatized, students who are just in the refugee camp, students who don’t have shelter, they will not stay in school. The best way to keep them engaged is to keep them challenged. Once you provide critical thinking, then you can transform individuals, because they can ask questions and they can have a sustainable life; they can begin to feel confidence. I started working in areas of education and health in the refugee camps during the Taliban. And it’s a great opportunity for me. I can see it has had a great impact on the people, because, day to day, I can see that people are changing. Women are actually going to school, they are getting jobs, they are building capacity, and they are learning skills. Health-wise, they are developing healthy habits, they really take care of their children and they are having fewer children. I can see all these changes. It has taken a long time and it will take time. In the 20 years I’ve worked in this area, I can see a difference.

CPWR: Twenty years ago you came to the realization that you had a unique role to fill for the empowerment of women and girls in Afghanistan. How did you go about establishing the underground schools? How did you recruit the potential teachers for the teacher training?

S. Yacoobi: During the Russian system of education, the Taliban didn’t support education. It was forbidden to provide education for women. I visited the refugee camp and I tried to convince a mullah to be a teacher and, of course, he thought I was crazy.  I told him, “No, I will train you.” I went day to day for three months to different camps and tried to convince this mullah, who was a really old man, to be a teacher. He finally agreed. Because he was a respected leader in the community, people would come to his compound to learn. So that’s what I did. I hired him as a teacher, I paid his salary— I not only paid for his salary, but I provided the supplies and the tent. In one year, we went from one tent inside the compound to opening schools in the refugee camp, one after another. We had 16 schools and 1,700 students. We didn’t have to do anymore convincing because people knew what we were about, that we wanted to provide education, that we were not held back by custom and culture.

We started by listening to what the people wanted. We started school after school and continued to provide teacher training, and today we have about 17,000 teachers. We also have also a portable health clinic with a van and a doctor and a nurse to provide health services. Children are learning about their environment, how to be clean, how to wash their hands. These models have been successful because people really protect the schools. They are behind the schools. We also tried to teach them skills training such as tailoring. We started offering workshops on hygiene and sex education, leadership, management, and gender issues. Through these workshops, 5,000 people came. So far, we have a reached a million people inside Afghanistan, and we provide services for 350,000 women and children.

CPWR: That’s a tremendous impact.

S. Yacoobi: It’s a great impact. But still, we have a 13 million population and 7 million to reach, but it’s a start. Women are stronger, women are participating in the political arena, they have jobs, and they are bringing income to families. In our program, many are widows, and these widows are the sole breadwinners for 10 to 15 family members. It’s great to see how they begin to take confidence, and that’s really what we are after, you know.

CPWR: You sound optimistic about the future of women’s rights in Afghanistan.

S. Yacoobi: Absolutely. It is important for people to understand that education is a human right. Every individual has the right to education. Before, they didn’t understand; they didn’t understand that Islam gives this opportunity, that Islam provides gender equality. It provides a principle for democracy, if people can understand it, if people can re-interpret it, and this is what we are trying to do… to teach that all religions teach equality; that you should be gender sensitive. This is something that has become popular. People really want to know. Once they come to know, they follow it.

CPWR: Would you say that your work has become easier since the Taliban lost power?

S. Yacoobi: Yes, it has become much easier, because we did not have to be underground – we didn’t have to be hiding. Our main problem is lack of security. We are now allowed to do the work, but women are scared to travel, women are scared to be by themselves. The first four, five years of the new government were fantastic, you know. But these last two years have become harder. Nothing compares to the time of the Taliban. I can say to you now that the women are better off, of course. Still, we have a lot of violence and a lot of health issues. Providing support to families in far away villages is very hard because of security. People are poor, they don’t have housing, they don’t have water, they don’t have electricity, and they don’t have a road to go from one part of the country to the next. Lack of security enables more violence, more war inside Afghanistan. So, if the issue of security were taken care of, it would be fantastic, yes.

CPWR: Your country has been making headlines recently. Over $1 trillion in natural resources have been discovered and reports say Afghanistan may be one of the most important mining centers in the world. How do you think this will affect Afghanistan’s future?

S. Yacoobi: Well, to tell you the truth, the people of Afghanistan always knew that Afghanistan has lots of natural resources. They knew that because so many people are trying to get into Afghanistan. Always somebody comes and raids us, one after another, and we knew that something must be special about this country… so great that everybody wants a piece of it. But the people of Afghanistan will benefit only if there is security. If security is not there, I don’t think that the people of Afghanistan will benefit. We need to first take care of the security issue, because people are not safe in Afghanistan. There is war inside Afghanistan. Everyday there is a war. The second issue is that corruption is everywhere. If there is corruption, no matter how many resources the government or the country has, the people will suffer. I hope that somehow this resource will benefit civil society, because they are very poor, they don’t have enough. My people have suffered for 30 years. They are refugees. And we still have 1.5 million refugees in Pakistan. I hope this resource will be a great help for the people of Afghanistan. Not intercepted by corrupted people, you know?

CPWR: Do you think the discovery of these natural resources will or can help strengthen your cause?

S. Yacoobi: It should go to education because if this goes to the right area, Afghanistan society will benefit. Education is the key issue for infrastructure. If this resource is being spent in the right place, we can educate society; society that is well educated will have good lawyers, good doctors, good scientists, and good teachers. Then our country will not have to look to somebody else to provide. They can have these skills; they can do it by themselves. If we have high technology, we can one day provide for ourselves, and that is my hope.

CPWR: What’s the most challenging aspect of your work?

S. Yacoobi: Security. Security is the first challenge. If security is taken care of, we can go province to province of Afghanistan and implement programs. The second challenge is the lack of resources, lack of funding. We don’t have enough funding. Thousands of people are waiting to get into the program and want us to open additional trainings in different provinces of Afghanistan. Human resources are lacking, because we lost all of our educated people during the war. Our government is facing problems because we don’t have human resources. We don’t have people who are skilled specialists, people who are highly educated.

CPWR: What can the global community do in order to help your work in empowering women?

S. Yacoobi: I hope that the global community can see the Afghan people, especially Afghan women, as courageous and not submissive. There are brave and courageous women in Afghanistan… very talented women. We have young women who are so smart, so intelligent. If opportunities are given to them, they can create … they are very creative. People want to do things for themselves, and the only way we can offer this is to give enough training to our people. Once we train people, we bring a skill, and, in turn, they can support us. I would like the international community to understand that lots of training needs to be done in this country, and once we get it we will be able to do it. I really appreciate funding very, very much, because then I can spend more time inside Afghanistan and do my trainings. I spend most of my time outside my country, because I have to do fundraising. I am only one individual, so, of course, God has been helping me. But it has been very tough, and it always will be.

CPWR: Yes, funding is key for providing the opportunity to the women and children of Afghanistan. If anyone reading here would like to support your work financially, how might they do so?

S. Yacoobi: The best way is to support the work of Creating Hope International. Its webpage is That is the way you can reach out to my program.

CPWR: Is there anything else can we do to help support your work other than through making donations to the website?

S. Yacoobi: The first thing I want to say that you can pray for my country and for my people, because, really, we need the prayers. Prayer is the best thing for us. And second thing is share the information about my program with others.

CPWR: Yes, yes. We would be delighted to. We’d love to.

S. Yacoobi: Thank you.

CPWR: Thank you. Dr. Yacoobi, what do you consider to be your most significant achievement?

S. Yacoobi: When I see children going to school. When they smile, when they are happy, when they can freely play I am most satisfied. When I first visited refugee camps and followed the children around… they were crying… they were sad. Their eyes told their story. But now when you see them and they are happy and smile, that is the greatest achievement I could ever imagine.

CPWR: How has your work been shaped by your faith?

S. Yacoobi: I strongly believe that I’ve been able to do my work because I have a strong faith. I really believe in God. I am a Muslim. I practice my religion, but I am not a fanatic Muslim. I believe that God gave us this opportunity and flexibility, especially when speaking about the Qur’an.  Qur’an offers text that is timeless — for 10-15 years from now or 100 years from today. It is a text that you can use as a resource and apply that knowledge in everyday life.

I believe that God is with me – always protecting me. People say, “How could you survive, and aren’t you scared?” And I say “No, I am not scared; first of all, because I have a strong belief in God, and I know that God is protecting me every step of my life, and He has been guiding me.” Otherwise, for me, just myself, to be able to reach 7 million people, to be able to provide almost $3 million in funding to my cause… any other way… would be impossible. He has been providing for me and He has been guiding me. I have a strong belief, and I consider my faith a big part of my life.

CPWR: What sort of steps do you believe must be taken in order achieve harmony among the different religions of the world? Where do you think we should begin?

S. Yacoobi: Religion is global. Everybody has a religion. And I think we should respect each other’s religion, and we should not discriminate against anyone’s religion. I also believe that every religion has something good to offer. I feel that if we really put aside our differences and work on our commonalities, we will achieve a lot.

CPWR: Can you share about your experience at the 2009 Parliament?

S. Yacoobi: The event meant so much to me. First of all, I was exposed to so many wonderful people. When you go to a conference and see so many different people from different nationalities, different backgrounds, different faiths, this was so wonderful. I met one individual that I will never forget – a very spiritual and wise individual who I’ve learned so much from. I have been talking with this individual afterward. I learned so much; everybody was so kind, generous, wise, and I learned a lot, yes.

CPWR: Would you share with us the most meaningful moment for you at the 2009 Parliament?

S. Yacoobi: When I was at the Parliament, I felt a sense of solidarity. In the moment when I was standing at the podium, I saw so many great and wonderful people who, from their heart, shared with me and listened to what was happening to me and to my country. I appreciated that very, very much.

CPWR: What message would you most like to share with us today?

S. Yacoobi: Well, today I would like to share with you that I am at a conference here and that I am getting an award, and it is wonderful. This award is not only for me; it’s for all the women of Afghanistan. When I achieve, I feel good because this recognizes the work of the women of Afghanistan. I would like to share with you that this is not my award. This award is for the women of Afghanistan and for the children of Afghanistan and for the suffering that they have undergone. One of the reasons I am successful- as individual I am successful- is because I really believe strongly in my religion. I want to share that every individual needs structure in their life, and that structure is their religion.

CPWR: Thank you so much for your time. And congratulations on receiving the award. What institution is presenting the award to you, and what’s the name of the award?

S. Yacoobi: The Global Health Council is giving me an award. It’s called the Jonathan Mann Award.

CPWR: Well, congratulations on it! What an honor. Lastly, if you could only share one final thought with us, what would it be?

S. Yacoobi: Be yourself. Offer yourself to the world. Always be yourself.

CPWR: Ah, how true. Yes.

S. Yacoobi: Very important. Thank you very much. I really appreciate your time also and your good questions. And I am looking forward to when maybe I can see you.

CPWR: Yes, hopefully at the 2014 Parliament, if not sooner? It would be lovely to have you there.

S. Yacoobi: Yes, I am looking forward to it. Thank you, thank you very much.

CPWR: Thank you so much, Dr. Yacoobi.

S. Yacoobi: Wonderful talking to you. Thank you.

July 9th, 2010 at 12:26 pm

Honoring the life of Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bukhari

Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bukhari, a leader of the Sufi faith and head of the Uzbeke Community in Jerusalem, passed away last week. A leading Muslim voice for peace and reconciliation, Sheikh Bukari spoke on the panel “Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding: The Case of Israel-West Bank-Gaza” at the 2009 Parliament.

Sheikh Bukhari

Sheikh Bukhari

At The Jerusalem Post, Lauren Gelfond Feldinger writes:

In a small and ancient family plot attached to his ancestral home in Jerusalem’s Old City, regional Sufi leader Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bukhari was laid to rest on Tuesday at age 61, after a long struggle with heart disease. He was head of the mystical Naqshabandi Holy Land Sufi Order.

A longtime proponent of nonviolence and interfaith unity, Bukhari found his inspiration in Islamic law and tradition, as well as in the writings of Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

“The stronger one is the one who can absorb the violence and anger from the other and change it to love and understanding. It is not easy; it is a lot of work. But this is the real jihad,” he once told the Globaloneness Project in an interview.

His teachings and practices put him in danger and under great stress that over the years harmed his health, said Sheikh Ghassan Manasra of Nazareth, whose father heads the regional Holy Land Qadari Sufi Order.

“Sheikh Bukhari influenced lots of people, worked hard to bridge the religions and cultures; and his teaching is keeping part of the youth on the right path. We worked together for many years and succeeded many times and failed many times and decided to stay on the [path] of God to bring peace, tolerance, harmony and moderation,” he said.

“But on both sides, Jewish and Muslim, there are moderates but also extreme people, and our work was very dangerous, with a lot of pressure and stress until now, and I think this explains, in part, his heart problems.”

Dozens of family members and close friends, including Jews, Christians and Muslims, and the Uzbek ambassador to Israel, prayed together at the funeral on Tuesday, as Bukhari, in a white shroud, was lowered into the same grave as his grandfather, great-grandfather and the line of family sheikhs dating to the 17th century.

Numerous rabbis, Muslim and Druse sheikhs, Christian clerics and friends of all faiths from around the country are expected to pay respects at the mourning tents, which will receive visitors for three days.

Click here to read the full article.

Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bukhari passed away June 3 at age 61.

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times on the Parliament

Nicholas Kristof, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and respected columnist for the New York Times has just published a blog post discussing President Jimmy Carter’s speech to the 2009 Parliament of Religions.  Describing the speech as “magnificent,” Kristof reflects on the question of the capacity of religion to act as either an impediment or an aid to women’s rights around the world.

To read Kristof’s post, click here.

To see our video of President Carter’s speech, click here.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Closing Plenary

San Jose Interfaith Examiner writer D. Andrew Kille, himself a participant in the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions, has written a short piece on the final event in Melbourne.  While the article is careful to mention the addresses of major religious leaders and musical performances, Kille takes a few moments to consider the Dalai Lama‘s appeal to “a strong secularism – not a secularism that denies the importance of religion, but one which respects the practitioners of all religions and of none.”

The article concludes with a convenient list of links and interreligious resources.

To read the full piece, click here.

Prof Dr Tariq Ramadan Speaks Out Against Swiss Minaret Ban

The Prof Dr Tariq Ramadan, a major speaker at the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions spoke Monday with Erdem Koc of SBS News about a Swiss referendum to ban minaret construction.  Ramadan draws distinction between local ties in many Western countries, which have improved in recent years and national initiatives, which he claims have faltered.

To listen to the full interview, click here.

Venerable Dharma Master Hsin Tao Calls for Climate Change Action

The Age has written an article on Parliament major speaker the Venerable Dharma Master Hsin Tao.  Recounting the Master’s personal experiences as a child soldier for Kuo Min Tang, the piece also describes his monastic vocation and ongoing interreligious work and activism.

Speaking on climate change, Hsin Tao observes that “if we can achieve a common understanding of the real problems — the ecological problems facing the earth — then the other problems will solve themselves.”

To read the full article, click here.

Dr Hans Küng calls for Roman Catholic Reforms

Parliament major speaker Dr Hans Küng called on the Vatican to heed reform calls in the Roman Catholic Church,  The Age reported today.  ”Already the successor of this Pope will have to face the situation that churches are more and more empty, and parishes are without pastors, and communities are dissolving,” Küng said, arguing that reforms not discussed during Vatican II must be acknowledged soon.

Dr Hans Küng is the president of the Global Ethic Foundation of Tübingen University.  On Monday he launched his economic ethical manifesto at the Parliament of the World’s Religions.

To read the full article, click here.

Major Speaker Katherine Marshall Featured in the Washington Post

In an op-ed published today in one of the United States’ most prestigious publications — The Washington Post — major speaker Katherine Marshall extols the fact and potential of the Parliament of the World’s Religions.  By focusing on topics such as poverty, climate change, the role of women of faith and indigenous peoples, Margaret presents a vision of “a fresh determination to mobilize the energies and creativity…”

To read the full story, click here.